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Grand Vefour restaurant in Paris loses third Michelin star

PARIS: The restaurant where Napoleon ate is no longer fit for a king.

Le Grand Vefour, a two-century-old Paris institution overlooking the Palais Royal gardens, lost its coveted third Michelin star on Monday � the only restaurant with the guide's highest ranking to be downgraded in the 2008 edition of the French bible of gastronomy.

Compared to the tumult of some years, there was little movement this time among upper-echelon restaurants in France. Only one establishment, Le Petit Nice in the southern port city of Marseille, was upgraded to three stars.

The anonymous inspectors for the Michelin guide � who pose as traveling salesmen or amorous couples as they scour France for the perfect meal � can make or break a chef's fortune. Jean-Luc Naret, the guide's director, said they don't wield their opinions carelessly.

Inspectors dined at chef Guy Martin's Le Grand Vefour 10-12 times in two years before deciding to demote it, he said.

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"The problem was consistency," he told The Associated Press. "Guy Martin didn't lose any of his talent, but when you have one of the 68 best restaurants in the world, you have to be good every day."

Martin worked his way up from humble beginnings � in a pizza parlor � to run the classic French dining establishment. The chef, whose newest project is a restaurant in Boston, Sensing, did not immediately respond to a call seeking comment.

Martin's classic dishes include foie gras raviolis with truffle cream sauce, as well as hazelnut and milk chocolate pastry with caramel ice cream and a touch of sea salt.

The restaurant dates back to 1784, and guests dine amid 18th century gilded decor and delicate hand-painted panels. The Web site proudly lists past guests, including Napoleon and his wife Josephine, as well as writers Victor Hugo, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Colette and Andre Malraux.

The Michelin guide for France, to be published in French and English on Thursday, puts special emphasis on young chefs, with 510 listings for restaurants where you can eat for a reasonable price: �28 or less (US$42.57) in the provinces and �35 (US$53.21) in Paris. There are 435 one-star establishments, 68 with two-star and 26 with three.

The only restaurant to win three stars Monday was also the first in Marseille to earn Michelin's highest rating, Naret said. Le Petit Nice, which overlooks the Mediterranean and specializes in seafood, was founded in 1917 by the grandfather of the current chef, Gerald Passedat.

Passedat called the prize a "consecration for three generations of chefs," telling LCI television that he felt "great emotion, respect and honor for my family, clients and team." His menu includes a modern interpretation of bouillabaisse, which the restaurant promises is "light, zephyr-like and tasting of the sea."

Other specialties are delicacies that he feels have been overlooked, including sea anemones. Naret said Passedat was rewarded for using local ingredients and re-interpreting his family's recipes to "astonishing" effect.

The Michelin guide was more than usually talkative about its decisions � possibly a reaction to a tell-all book by a former inspector who caused a storm in 2004 with allegations that the guide checked restaurants only sporadically and let some chefs undeservedly keep stars mostly because of their prestige.

Naret also served up details on the job description of the 15 full-time French Michelin inspectors. Some keep their job title hidden from family members. Any inspector who is unmasked by a restaurant is banned from the surrounding region for five years, he said.

Every year, the average inspector drives 30,000 kilometers (18,640 miles) and visits 800 restaurants and hotels. And though inspectors stuff themselves constantly with haute cuisine, the stereotype is wrong: Inspectors are generally slim, not chubby.

"It's the Michelin diet," Naret said. "French women don't get fat, and Michelin inspectors don't either."


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